The change of dynasties was one of the important phenomena in ancient Chinese societies that underwent social restructuring. When a dynasty develops to a later stage, many social conflicts become difficult to regulate until they become bigger and bigger, and all it takes is a chance factor to light the fuse, and a seemingly solid and unbeatable feudal dynastic edifice collapses completely.
Chinese generally tell the history from the Xia Dynasty, which began in the 21st century BC and was followed by various dynasties until 1912 when Dr.Sun Yat-sen was proclaimed the provisional president of the Republic of China.
The Xia Dynasty（2070 BC – 1600 BC）
Xia is the first prehistoric dynasty in Chinese history. It is said that when the legendary ruler Yu died, his son was chosen to be the leader, thus creating the Xia Dynasty and establishing the system of hereditary dynastic rule. There were 14 generations with 17 rulers in Xia Dynasty before it was taken place by the Shang Dynasty. Scientific excavations by archaeologists uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that provided evidence of the existence of the Xia civilization.
The Xia were agrarian people, and by the time of Yao, Shun and Yu, farming and stockbreeding were considerably developed. People were familiar with the phenomena of seasonal changes and arranged their farm activities according to the alterations of the seasons.
The Shang Dynasty（1600 BC -1046 BC）
The Shang Dynasty consisted of 17 generations and 31 kings, and it controlled the central part of China, extending over much of modern Henan, Hubei, Shandong, Anhui, Shanxi, and Hebei provinces. Its civilization was based on agriculture, hunting and animal husbandry. The Shang was often at war with neighboring peoples and they had to move their capital seven times.
The Shang Dynasty enjoyed the most advanced bronze civilization in the world. The excavated bronze weapons, bronze fittings for chariots and harnesses and ceremonial bronze vessels with inscriptions dating back to the Shang period show the highly skillful technique in the bronze making.
The development of a writing system can be witnessed in the oracles like tortoise shells or animal bones, and these writings were the beginning of the written Chinese language.
The Shang king’s rule was based on both religious and military power. The king made animal sacrifices and communicated with his ancestors by interpreting the cracks on heated cattle bones or tortoise shells that had been prepared by professional diviners. Kings were buried with ritual vessels, weapons, jades, and human sacrifice. Sometimes, when a ruler died, more than one hundred slaves were forced to join him in the grave. Some of them would be decapitated first, and some of them were just cruelly thrown into the tomb alive.
The Zhou Dynasty（1046 BC – 256 BC）
The Zhou Dynasty reigned for more than 800 years with 37 kings, the longest period of all Chinese dynasties. The Zhou Dynasty falls into several sub-periods: the Western Zhou, and the Eastern Zhou which is further divided into the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC – 476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475 BC -256 BC)
The Kings Wen and Wu, the founders of the Zhou Dynasty, were regarded as the ideal monarchs by the Confucians for they reined with morality, humanity and righteousness. The Zhou Dynasty was a turning point in Chinese history for it evolved into the feudal system, and witnessed territorial expansion, economic prosperity and cultural flourishing.
The Zhou Dynasty was characterized by great intellectual achievements in terms of the rise of Confucianism, Daoism and the development of Chinese philosophy. Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, and Laozi, the founder of Daoism together with other philosophers and theorists such as Mencius, Mozi, Zhuangzi, Han Feizi, Xunzi, etc., made an unprecedentedly huge impact on Chinese culture.
The Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods are famous for the cultural prosperity of “Hundred Schools of Thought”.During this era, many poets voiced their opinions of criticism and emotions, many of which were preserved in the Book of Poetry, the first important work of literature in Chinese history.
The concept of the ruler as the“Son of Heaven” originated during the Zhou period and the concept of the“mandate of heaven” gained popularity. It was believed that the emperor ruled by divine right and his dethronement would prove that he had lost the mandate, and heaven expresses disapproval of an evil ruler through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and plagues and through rebellions.
The Qin Dynasty（221 BC – 206 BC）
Qin Shihuang, the first Emperor of China, established the first centralized, unified, multi-ethnic feudal state in Chinese history—the Qin Dynasty after a few hundred years of disunity. Although the rule of the two Qin emperors lasted only about two decades, it marks the beginning of a more than two thousand years-long history of a centralized state with an emperor being the head of a state and a comparatively uniform culture.
Qin Shihuang made many changes and reforms to unify China and help with his administrative tasks. He standardized the written script so as to create a consistent way to help people communicate across the country. Weights, measures and currencies were also standardized, and the system of prefectures and counties was solidly established. The sovereigns of the next 2,000 years actually followed the feudal governmental structure established by the Qin.
Qin Shihuang is an epoch-making historic emperor in China’s history. He was praised as a unifier and centralizer but was attacked and criticized as a cruel tyrant. Under his rule, many constructive public projects were undertaken. Roads and irrigation canals were built throughout the country, and in order to fend off the barbarian invasion, the fortification walls were built to make a 5,000-kilometer-long great wall. On the other hand, he executed 400 of his opponents and burned the books written before the Qin Dynasty to wipe out ideas that conflicted with the Emperor. The public works and taxes were too great a burden to the population. He forced huge laborers to build his tombs, and hundreds upon thousands of terra cotta armies and horses were found at the burial site, which meant to protect the tomb for the Qin.
The Han Dynasty（206 BC – 220 AD）
In 206 BC, Liu Bang succeeded in founding a new empire, the Han Dynasty, with its capital at Chang’an. The reign of the Han lasted 406 years with 24 generations, and it is regarded as one of the greatest dynasties in Chinese History. The ethnic majority of Chinese still call themselves the“Han people”. The Han dynasty fell into three periods: Western Han (206 BC – 8 AD), Wang Mang’s Xin Dynasty (822 AD), and Eastern Han (25 – 220 AD).
The new empire basically remained much of the Qin administrative structure but retreated some from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities in some areas for political purposes. Under the Han Emperors, the empire expanded into southern China, northern Vietnam, and parts of Korea, westward as far as the rim of the Tarim Basin, and forged a trade route called “the silk road” through Central Asia to Antioch, Baghdad, and Alexandria.
Confucian ideals of government were adopted as the canon of the Han Empire, and Confucian scholars gained conspicuous status as the core of the civil service. An imperial examination system was also initiated to select officials. China’s most famous historian Sima Qian was in the Han period, whose Historical Records provide an elaborated chronicle of the politics, economy, culture and history of 3,000 years from the time of the legendary Xia emperor to the Western Han Dynasty.
In the Han dynasty, science and technology made remarkable achievements. Paper, the compass, and the seismograph were invented, and steel was manufactured, advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography were also noteworthy in history.
Three Kingdoms (222-280 AD)
The collapse of the Han dynasty was followed by a long period of disunity and civil war. The first period was the Three Kingdoms: Wei in northern China, Shu to the west, and Wu in the east. Continuous wars among the three states developed various wise political and military thoughts and produced talented persons such as Zhuge Liang, Cao Cao, who demonstrated their special ability not only in military and political affairs but also in literature.
Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties (220 – 581 AD)
Jin historically fell into two periods: Western Jin (265 – 317 AD) with Luoyang as its capital city, and Eastern Jin (317 – 420 AD) with Jiankang (present Nanjing) as its capital city. Jin Dynasty did not last long with a lot of confrontations and conflicts, and people surrounding the capital suffered due to the fighting and began a migration out from the center of the empire to the more peaceful frontier regions.
After Jin was destroyed, there appeared the Dynasties of the North and South, lasted 160 years. It was an age of civil war and political disunity. The northern dynasties consisted of the Northern Wei, the Eastern Wei, the Western Wei, the Northern Qi and the Northern Zhou. The southern dynasties consisted of the Song, Qi, Liang, and Chen four generations.
The Dynasties of the North and South were an era of quick and widespread of Buddhism, the flourishing in poetry, music, calligraphy, and painting with remarkable representatives like the great calligrapher Wang Xizhi and outstanding painter Gu Kaizhi. It also enjoyed considerable advancements in technology, for example, Zu Chongzhi (429 – 501AD) made a unique contribution to mathematics, and introduced the approximation 355/113 to π which is correct to 7 decimal places.
The Sui Dynasty (581 – 618 AD)
China was reunified by the Sui dynasty founded by emperor Sui Wendi, Yang Jiang, with the capital at Chang’an. The dynasty was short-lived, lasting 38 years with only three emperors.
However, in this time period, the social economy underwent rapid recovery and development. Governmental power was centralized and the “Three Departments and Six Ministries” system was officially instituted. Great efforts were devoted to the improvement of the national defense and the expansion of the Great Wall. The land equalization system was exercised in order to enhance agricultural productivity and reduce the gap between the rich and poor social groups. The Sui dynasty witnessed various reforms and achievements such as the construction of the engineering feats like the Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou and the Zhaozhou Bridge. Confucianism began to regain popularity, and Buddhism was further spread and encouraged throughout the empire to reunite the people of different regions.
However, due to the crushing burden of taxes and forced labor imposed on people, the disastrous military warfare against Koguryo, and Yang Di’s extravagance and corruption, peasant uprisings broke out and soon swept the whole country, which finally brought about the downfall of the dynasty.
The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD)
The Tang Dynasty was established by Li Yuan in 618 AD with its capital at Chang’an, lasting 290 years with 21 emperors. The Tang dynasty is considered to be a high point in Chinese civilization history. The boundaries of China were extended to Siberia in the North, Korea peninsula in the east, Vietnam in the South, and the west in the Aral Sea in mid-Asia.
The Tang Dynasty witnessed a period of political, economic and cultural boom in China. At that time, China was so powerful and prosperous that it ranked among the most advanced countries in the world. It established friendly ties with Japan and many countries in West Asia, Europe and even Africa, which secured peace and safety on overland trade routes reaching as far as Syria and Rome, with its capital Chang’an as a center of economical and cultural exchange between various countries.
During the Tang period, Buddhism flourished and gradually became localized as an important part of Chinese traditional culture. A Buddhist monk called Xuan Zang traveled from Chang’an through Gansu, Xinjiang and Central Asia to India for the furtherance of Buddhist classics. The imperial examination system was perfected under Tang rule to discover and attract the best talents without social connections to serve as government officials.
The Tang period was also the golden age of literature and art, which produced the most brilliant poetry in the country. Among the hundreds of poets of the Tang Dynasty, the best-known are Li Bai, Du Fu and Bai Juyi.
In the mid-8th century, the “An Lushan and Shi Siming Rebellion” brought about political disturbance and considerably weakened the power and authority of the court. Misrule, court intrigues, rebellions and peasant uprisings weakened the empire, finally putting the ever-powerful and mighty Tang Dynasty to an end in 907. The next half-century saw the fragmentation of China into five northern dynasties and ten southern kingdoms.
Read more: The Tang Dynasty: China’s ‘Golden’ Dynasty
The Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD)
The Song period was divided into two phases: Northern Song (960 – 1127 AD) and Southern Song (1127 – 1279 AD). With a thriving economy, radiant education and culture, the Song Dynasty were considered to be another period of prime time in Chinese history after the glorious Tang Dynasty.
The Northern Song was founded in 960 AD by Zhao Kuangyin in Bianliang (Current Kaifeng of Henan Province). In 1127 AD, the Northern Song Dynasty was destroyed by the Jin Dynasty. Zhao Gou fled to Nanjing Yingtianfu (Current Shangqiu of Henan Province) and established the Southern Song Dynasty there. Later, the capital city was moved to Lin’an (Currently Hangzhou of Zhejiang Province). The Song Dynasty lasted 320 years with 18 emperors altogether.
The Song Dynasty had a dramatic increase of population, which in some degree fomented and fueled an economic revolution in China. During this period, agriculture, the handicraft industry, the shipbuilding industry and commerce flourished, and science and technology made impressive advancements. The Song dynasty was notable for the development of cities for administrative purposes and for the development of trade, industry, and maritime commerce as well. There was a thrivingness in calligraphy, painting, sculpture and weaving art. Achievements in porcelain manufacture surpassed all previous dynasties, and the Song porcelain was transported through sea routes to overseas countries. Gunpowder widely used for military purposes, the compass employed for navigation, and the movable type printing by Bi Sheng are huge contributions to the world civilization.
Song poetry was a newly emergent literary form extremely popular at that time with famous poets such as Liu Yong, Su Shi, Xin Qiji, and Li Qingzhao. Shen Kuo, who excelled in many fields of study and statecraft, wrote Dream Pool Essays which cover different fields like astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology, medicine, and so on, astounding the people of the world.
Read more: The Song Dynasty: China’s Philosophically Diverse Dynasty
The Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD)
The Yuan Dynasty was established by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan – the Mongols’ leader, lasting 163 years with 11 emperors. The Yuan Dynasty gradually adopted Chinese political and cultural models. However, during the 1340s and 1350s, internal political cohesion disintegrated as growing factionalism at court, rampant corruption, and a succession of natural calamities led to rebellion, and finally, the dynasty collapsed.
Due to the renewed national unification, the economy was boosted which promoted science and culture, improved the ties between various nationalities and increased contacts and communications with foreign nations. The first records of travel by the Venetian Marco Polo accounted for his trip to China, which aroused both great interest and awe in the world.
The religious culture of the Yuan Dynasty received an all-around development. The Mongolians’ own religion, Buddhism as well as the traditional Chinese religion of Daoism simultaneously acquired their positions in the Yuan society. There was remarkable cultural flowering; especially a new kind of literature from Yuan Drama was prosperous during that period. The Yuan drama was one of the outstanding Chinese literary heritages. The most influential works are Wang Shifu’s Romance of the Western Chamber, Guan Hanqing’s Dou E Yuan.
Read more: The Yuan Dynasty: China’s First Non-Han Dynasty
The Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD)
The Ming Dynasty was founded by a peasant uprising leader Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368 AD. He drove the Mongol emperor away from the capital (now Beijing) and restored Han nationality rule in China. The Ming Dynasty lasted 277 years with 16 emperors with its capital first at Nanjing and later from the 1421 year at Beijing. In 1644 the Ming Dynasty was overthrown by the peasant armies under Li Zicheng.
During the Ming Dynasty, the development of agriculture and handicraft production brought an expansion to the commodity economy. From the middle of Ming times onward, capitalism began to burgeon in some handicraft industries along the coastal regions. There were enormous projects of construction including the restoration of the Grand Canal and the Great Wall and the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Overseas contacts also greatly increased with the growth of the shipbuilding industry and navigation technology. Zheng He, a famous navigator, traveled to the West in seven epic voyages from 1405 to 1433, visiting over 30 countries throughout South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and distant Africa.
There were a great number of literary achievements in the Ming Dynasty. The travel literature author Xu Xiake’s Travel Diaries is of high scientific and literary value. The classic fictional novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Pilgrimage to the West, and The Golden Lotus (Jin Ping Mei) were very well received and noticed. One of the most famous plays in Chinese history, the Peony Pavilion, written by the Ming playwright Tang Xianzu is still on show.
Read more: The Ming Dynasty: China’s ‘Brilliant’ Dynasty
The Qing Dynasty (1636 – 1911 AD)
In 1616, after reunifying all the Nuzhen tribes, Nurhachu set up “Latter Jin” and proclaimed himself emperor. In 1636, Huang Taiji, son of Nurhachu changed the regime title to “Qing”, thus establishing the Qing Dynasty. In 1644, the Manchus seized control of Beijing, and in October of the same year, the capital was moved to Beijing. The Qing Dynasty lasted 276 years with 11 emperors.
The Qing Dynasty reached its peak during the reigns of emperors Kang Xi, Yong Zheng, and Qian Long, which is known as the Kang Qian Sheng Shi. Its territory was extensive; economy and commerce developed; literature and arts flowered and culture of various forms thrived. However, due to the isolation policy and corruption, the late years of the Qing Dynasty began to decline with intensified social conflicts and continuous uprisings. In 1840, when the Opium War broke out, the Qing court was confronted with a crisis at home and abroad. In the end, the revolution of 1911 led by Sun Yat-sen broke out and overthrew the Qing Dynasty.
Before the Daoguang age, the Qing enjoyed great cultural achievements with eminent theoreticians and thinkers like Wang Fuzhi, Gu Yanwu, and the important history critic Huang Zongxi, etc. The Qing promoted the collection of knowledge and writing of China, and the most famous collection that tried to summarize all existent writings that had ever been published was The Imperial Collection of Four, the largest collection of books in Chinese history and also probably the most ambitious editorial enterprise in the history of the world. The most conspicuous accomplishments in the Qing were the creation of novels like Cao Xueqin’s A Dream of Red Mansions, Wu Jingzi’s The Scholars. Other literary forms were also very well received, such as the short story collection Strange Tales of the Make-Do studio by Pu Songling, the theatre plays The Hall of Everlasting Life by Hong Sheng and The Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren.
Read more: The Qing Dynasty: China’s Final Dynasty